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100 Masks In Boston Just In Time For Halloween

BOSTON — Halloween is upon us. Last-minute costume hunters often run to the local pharmacy or party store to find a mass-produced rubber mask they can quickly slip on. But one Somerville artist painstakingly crafts elaborate, theatrical-quality masks all year long. One hundred of them are on display at the Lincoln Arts Project in Waltham.

Whimsical, Bizarre, Horrific

To find out more I headed over to Eric Bornstein’s studio on a sunny, October morning. As I shuffled through the crunchy, fallen leaves in his driveway I caught sight of him in the backyard, leaning over a table sheltered by a tarp. The artist wielded a spray can. He used it to coat three head-sized lumps before inviting me inside.

“Welcome to the sweat lodge,” he says with a mischievous laugh.

It is toasty in Bornstein’s “Behind the Mask” studio. The room is crammed with wide-eyed characters, many of them larger than life. Some are whimsical, others bizarre or horrific. There’s a pointy-eared goblin, an evil succubus, a feminine, white moon and a jackal-headed Anubis which once lived at the Museum of Fine Arts. You may have run into Bornstein’s creations around Boston: at First Night, in galleries or at theater and dance productions.

Bornstein sets down the three mounds he was spraying and quickly gets to business.

“I’m working on pouring the ‘mother molds’ for three masks that normally would take a month each to make that have to get made in a couple of weeks altogether,” Bornstein says. “There are also a number of other masks that need to get shipped out across the country because it’s a busy month for mask work.”

The molds for three masks Bornstein was making for the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "Madama Butterly." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The molds for three masks Bornstein was making for the Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly.” (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Is October the busiest month for Bornstein?

“This year it is,” Bornstein says, but, “we’re working 12 months a year. We’re making masks every single day, seven days a week. Art never sleeps here. It occasionally takes a gasping breath.”

Bornstein himself was breathing heavy as he talked because he has so many masks to make in so little time. He uses a trowel to stir a gooey mixture that hardens to support the three rubber molds he made the night before. They’re for the Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” that opens Friday. He also needs to finish a mask inspired by the Batman comic book and movie series: Bane, the vengeful villain.

“We’re seeing a lot of pickup in business with the new youth demographics,” Bornstein says. “All the different subcultures from gaming, anime, fantasy.”

Next Bornstein slathers the hot Plasti-Paste onto the molds. When they’ve cooled he’ll pull them off and then apply a layer of paper mache. Ultimately, he’ll use vivid paints to bring the inanimate faces to life.

“Most of the techniques I use are the techniques I developed myself,” the lifelong artist says.

‘The Shifting Faces Of Identity’

Bornstein has been making masks for 37 years. In the beginning he taught himself. Eventually he traveled to Bali and Italy to learn traditional wood-carving and leather-working methods from masters. Here in Somerville, the artist has been on a mission to develop a local mask culture.

Studio assistant Anya Malkina holds up some masks. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Studio assistant Anya Malkina holds up some masks. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“People have been coming here for a very long time and have sort of rediscovered the world’s most ancient art,” Bornstein says. “I mean, we have mask representations in cave paintings. You know, this is an age-old investigation of the shifting faces of identity.”

“Are you creepy? Are you angry? Are you cute?,” studio assistant Anya Malkina asks while staring at three brownish, long-nosed creatures that kind of resemble birds, but also look a bit like Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She has been working with Bornstein for three years.

“I never thought I’d be making masks,” she admits, but says she became fascinated after making some fairies for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Now, Malkina enjoys wearing the masks she helps create.

“It’s fun to see yourself,” she says quietly, with a smile. Then she shares a story about a recent photo shoot where she was enlisted to dress up as an owl.

“And I had to be high in a tree wearing this mask,” she recalls. “And it’s not like you’re looking in the camera with your own eyes, you have to make sure the owl is looking in the camera — and you are her now — you’re the owl! It’s a very interesting experience.”

The three masks Malkina is finishing are playing a part in the Halloween art show.

The completed "Madame Butterfly" masks. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The completed “Madame Butterfly” masks. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Now, you might think Halloween would be a mask maker’s favorite holiday — but this artist is actually conflicted.

“Halloween, when the veil between the worlds is thin,” Bornstein intones. “I’m still understanding Halloween. You know, it’s a playful time, it’s fun time. I was sort of watching it from a distance for a while because it seemed kind of trite compared to the work that I was doing, but I think I’ve gotten off that high horse and, you know, it’s no time for a mask maker to hide.”

Which is exactly what curator Ami Bennitt thinks. She’s included Bornstein’s work in her annual Space 242 Halloween exhibition before, formerly in Boston’s SoWa arts district. But for her show this year in Waltham, Bennitt challenged the artist by asking him: “Can we show 100 masks?”

Well, that’s what they’re doing.

“Because I’ve been here to the studio before and am overwhelmed and I felt like, even as a fan of Halloween yourself, you can’t really grasp it until you come here, until you watch how many hours it takes to build authentic, innovative masks,” Bennitt says. “I’m flabbergasted by it every time I see it!”

An Opportunity

Using a dremel tool, Bornstein smooths the rough edges of an unpainted mask. The artist admits that while he’s not a fan of a mass-produced Halloween, he also sees the holiday as an opportunity.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“That’s a window that we have to catch people’s attention to what magic lies behind that mask,” he says.

Funny thing is, the guy behind well over 100 masks won’t be wearing even one when he goes trick-or-treating.

“I don’t usually wear a mask on Halloween. I take my son out trick-or-treating,” Bornstein explains. “Like Julian asked me yesterday, my son, he said, ‘Dad, what are you going to be for Halloween?’ I said, ‘Julian’s dad.’ He said, ‘No, really?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s who I’m going to be.’ ”

Bornstein’s masks will be on display as part of the “Everything That Creeps” exhibit at the Lincoln Arts Project in Waltham. The gallery is open Halloween evening from 4 to 9 p.m.

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